SXSW 2024: ‘Monkey Man’ is Dev Patel’s Bloodthirsty, Action-Packed, Directorial Debut

Abe Friedtanzer reviews Dev Patel's directorial debut, the stylish and violent Monkey Man, which had its world premiere at SXSW 2024.
User Rating: 7

The Monkey Man has arrived! It’s been just over sixteen years since Dev Patel became an international star, previously known only for his British TV role in Skins. In Slumdog Millionaire, he played a true underdog, using a combination of impressive intelligence and sheer luck to catapult himself into an extraordinary situation of victory. After honing his acting skills in lighthearted projects like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel and more independent fare like Lion and The Green Knight, Patel has now stepped behind the camera,  arriving with a directorial debut that has echoes of Slumdog Millionaire buried under all its action and violence.

Patel stars as a man who fights in an underground ring wearing a monkey mask, forever destined to lose to his more palatable opponent. He engineers a plan to get himself a job working in a restaurant, appealing to the powerful woman whose wallet he very conveniently happened to find that he’ll do the job no one else wants to do because his hands have already been destroyed by years of brutal work. He has his sights set on the chief of police (Sikandar Kher), who has no idea who he is, even though he ruined his life when our protagonist was just a child.

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The exposition in Monkey Man isn’t its strongest asset since it takes time to understand precisely what events propelled the unnamed main character to exact such an elaborate revenge plot. There’s an overarching storyline about how the spiritual leader of India has designated his former home and other areas as holy sites, forcing the existing residents to leave and enacting vicious and deadly punishment for those who refused. Fighting the system is key to this film’s concept, no matter how many theoretically blameless cogs in the machine might have to die violent deaths in service of that goal.

Where Monkey Man really kicks into high gear is when it becomes a nonstop action movie. Early scenes in the ring don’t hold a candle to what comes much later when everything finally gets rolling. Still, audiences get a brief peek at the film’s sleekness and pacing when that first lift happens, and the wallet passes countless hands at meteoric speed before it lands where it’s supposed to be. Forget logic and certainly don’t keep count of how many foot soldiers meet a brutal end: the point of this film, which is set to be released theatrically in April by Universal Pictures rather than heading straight to streaming, is to delight in the stylized chaos.

Patel’s character is already a formidable fighter since knowing when to go down rather than keep trying can be just as important as physical strength. But after suffering an unfortunate setback in his plan, he has to heal and start from scratch. First seen working with a punching sandbag while a local musician scores his efforts, he soon graduates to bench-pressing water jugs. His fitness is commendable, but his grit and resolve to win no matter what truly defines him. It’s impossible not to admire his commitment, and fortunately for him, he does have something to back it up when it comes to his ability to throw a punch.

SXSW was the perfect place to launch this film, which earned raucous applause from the audience at its world premiere each time a bad guy met a bloody end, which is in no short supply. The fight choreography and stunts are superb, and the film’s most grotesque moments are stunningly executed. Patel knows what kind of movie he wants to make and has achieved that here. It plays to a particular audience that enjoys a heroic story of someone fighting corruption while appreciating and paying service to the authentic representation of a major international blockbuster with a lead who looks like him.

Monkey Man opens in theaters on April 5, 2024.

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